At the intersection of aboriginal culture, contemporary art and street culture, you will not find totem poles or soapstone carvings. Well, you might – but not as you imagined. Beat Nation: Art, Hip Hop and Aboriginal Culture, now at the Vancouver Art Gallery, challenges widely held notions of first-nations art, with work that is influenced by aboriginal tradition, yes, but also contemporary art and mainstream popular culture.
The "beat" is no mere title: Walk through the exhibition, and you will hear it, feel it – the gallery now a thumping nightclub where your dance partner may be beautiful and even fun, but informed by a deep-seated rage.
There are 27 artists, from across North America. They are aboriginal, and while that is central to their practice, it is not all-defining. "I want people to think about my work in a contemporary context," said Sonny Assu, whose art is as much rooted in pop art as his Kwakwaka'wakw tradition, "but recognize that it's coming from a traditional space."
Reaching back more than a decade, the show includes Brian Jungen's pioneering Nike Air Jordan sculptures (including one on loan from Michael Jordan himself) – for many, the introduction to this cultural mash-up. Outside the VAG, a permanent mark made just days ago, Nicholas Galanin's Indian Petroglyph, carved right into the sidewalk, re-appropriates the term "Indian," the script reminiscent of motorcycle company logos.
Beat Nation began as an online site co-curated by Tania Willard and Skeena Reece. Physical incarnations followed. Six months ago, Kathleen Ritter invited Willard to expand the show for the VAG.
It is a defining moment, bringing these works into this gallery, a former courthouse, once a symbol of government-decreed injustice for first nations people.
"When Kathleen originally talked about the idea of bringing it here, I had ... chills," says Willard, who is Secwepemc and co-curates with Ritter. "This was a really important moment to have this work here. ... A beautiful moment that's not divorced from difficult histories."
Reece's performance regalia Raven: On the Colonial Fleet embodies this notion, at once beautiful and angry.
"I didn't even realize we were taking over an entire floor – whoa," Reece says. "I almost feel like somebody missed a memo. Was there a mistake made? How did native people take over a floor? And then I was thinking, as a native person not feeling very represented at the gallery, are they just putting all the native artists on one floor to get it over with? Or is this genuinely the beginning of more recognition?"
Moving through the exhibition, propelled by the rhythm of the beat and the idea, one can't help feel - hope - that surely, it is the latter.
Beat Nation is at the Vancouver Art Gallery until June 3.